imaginal · imaginary · imagination

Chiara Bottici, in a recent edition of the journal Philosophy and Social Criticism (abstract), gets to the heart of the problem with current political discourse in Europe and elsewhere: a lack of imagination. By imagination, she is not talking about that required to bring us to some world where Ricky Gervais becomes god or even that necessary to read a Maurice Sendak. Rather she is talking about the imagination as sketched by Hannah Arendt after Immanuel Kant. This is the imagination of what is possible, of what is not currently within our view:

Imagination is central … because it makes present to our mind what is not in front of us. If we say of somebody that they are good, we probably have in the back of our mind examples such as St Francis or Jesus of Nazareth or some other archetypical example of goodness.

Because of its ability to represent what is not immediately in our view:

imagination is the faculty that enables us to put ourselves in the others’ shoes.

In other words, Bottici is asking if, through the hypertrophy of the authenticity of the image in Western mass media and the reduction of all governance to “mere administration”, we are missing a central part of the political process. She draws further on Castoriadis‘ point that one becomes a proper individual:

that is, a social individual, only through a forced process of socialization to the imaginary significations of a society.

Photo owned by gaab22 (cc)

That is we start with our own language and a discovery of the world as we find it. In flights away from what it is we find, we imagine what might be possible. How does this relate to politics? Well, after the weekend when the Irish people voted in favour of changing our own Constitution to adopt the Treaty of Lisbon and where the political imaginary of Ireland is left so bereft as to be mostly absent, we need a little bit more imagination and a little less technocracy. Perhaps this is the space, as Bottici asks herself, where the role of religion in the public sphere can exist: as an imagining of what might be possible. In a particularly striking passage (hence its full quotation) of the article, Bottici asks:

Caught in the double vice-like grip of spectacle, on the one hand, and reduction to governance, mere technique, on the other, politics is increasingly unable to provide resources of meaning. Hence the request for a greater role of religion in the public sphere: the latter, with its vocation to the
elimination of contingency through its system of beliefs
, is an endless reservoir of meaning, potentially able to cover over any appearance of chaos. This generates a crisis of the secular model according to which politics and religion must be separated: this model works only if politics and religion can rely on resources of meaning that are comparable at least. If politics drains away, it is unavoidable that we look for meaning elsewhere. [My emphasis]

“If politics drains away, it is unavoidable that we look for meaning elsewhere.” That sentence alone has a real power as we try to collectively understand what is ‘to be done’ in the coming months and years to get ‘us’ out of this financial crisis we find ourselves in. I’m hardly inducing a theocratic state by suggesting we become more imaginative about what is possible in the coming time when crucial decisions about resources will be made. Imagine if that most 19th century of phrases were to be used more widely in public discourses about Ireland’s future, social solidarity? Imagine for a moment if we stopped the arcane shouting at each other about a public sector that is supposedly draining the life out of the economy or that welfare “needs to be” cut by 5% or 10%. Think about a politics that doesn’t depend on everyone running to the lifeboats which are being put over the edge of a sinking ship.

Imagine instead if we asked ourselves some questions about what it is we want to achieve, about what is a decent, fair and just society and then started trying to bring that about?